Set in St John’s, Newfoundland, Kenneth J. Harvey’s novel is the story of a man, known only by his last name of “Mryden”, who is wrongfully convicted of murder and then released after spending 14 years in prison. The story picks up at the moment Mryden exits the prison gates and we follow him as he adjusts to the alien outside world: a wife who has moved in with her not-so-new boyfriend; a daughter living with her abusive husband; a granddaughter he has never met; a woman who was once his lover and might be again.
Mryden’s life before he went to prison was largely contained within the rough and working class parts of St John’s and his life on release is the same- it is rife with petty and not so petty crime, substance abuse, domestic abuse and government handouts. The bright spots are his granddaughter, a son who escaped the cycle of poverty (albeit by leaving the province) and Ruth, his once and again lover. For a book framed around a wrongful conviction, scant attention is paid to the crime he was cleared of, or whether he actually did it (the DNA evidence was exculpatory but Mryden’s faulty memory gives him no clean conscience). Rather, Harvey is concerned with watching Mryden readjust to life outside the prison- how has his time inside altered him and what does that alteration means when he is reinserted into his old life.
The writing is intentionally choppy, and I found it hard to read in long stretches- an example: “Those who kept visiting. Prison not bothering them. His buddies. Locked inside. A medal. A woman. To polish the medal. Robin was her name.”
This novel was longlisted for the Giller Prize, Canada’s biggest book prize, and while I can see why it was nominated (it’s a distinctive style and an interesting meditation on a number of topics- poverty, the prison system, whether people truly change, etc.), it wasn’t my favourite. (I also think that lately I’ve been looking for books that have happier or more optimistic endings- sad or melancholic books made hard pandemic reading…).